There’s a streak of slyly black humour running through David Cronenberg’s 1975 debut, Shivers (AKA The Parasite Murders, AKA They Came From Within). Its premise, about slug-like parasites that turn the occupants of a luxury apartment block into sex-obsessed maniacs, appears to have been conceived specifically to provoke as many people as possible. But while its story elements are straight from schlock horror – there’s a mad scientist, rubbery monsters, a vampish Barbara Steele, lashings of gore and some suspect acting – there’s still that hint of intelligence and satire that would soon become synonymous with Cronenberg’s name.
Shivers opens with a wilfully shocking scene – an apparently derranged old man killing a schoolgirl, cutting her open with a scalpel, dowsing her abdomen with acid, and then cutting his own throat – and becomes steadily more transgressive from there. The old man, it turns out, has unwittingly created a new breed of parasite which enters the human body through any available orifice, and quietly breeds in the stomach.
Cutting between various residents in an expensive yet soulless Canadian apartment complex, Shivers is essentially an ensemble movie. Its nominal protagonist is a quietly-spoken doctor called St Luc (Paul Hamton), but he has little more screentime than taciturn insurance executive Nick, his timid wife, and various other neurotic residents who, one by one, are attacked and infected by the disgusting parasites.
Although thin on characterisation, Shivers succeeds in bringing to the screen some quite unforgettable images. A sequence where Barbara Steele’s relaxing bath is interrupted by a parasite emerging from the plughole is supremely nasty, even though it’s not particularly graphic. Certainly, the overhead shot of Steele’s legs and the parasite gradually floating up between them had an impression on James Gunn, since both it and the look of the parasites were both cribbed for his 2006 comedy horror film, Slither.
Then there’s the shot of Nick, lying on his bed, as the parasites lurking in his stomach make little bulges in his skin, before later gorily erupting and shimmying off to find a new host. Remember, Shivers was made around four years before the release of Alien – while the makers of that film hadn’t necessarily seen Shivers, it’s interesting to note that Cronenberg was experimented with the Freudian possibilities of body horror long before HR Giger and Ridley Scott got together to make their sci-fi hit.
Although Shivers is first and foremost a horror film, it’s also a very funny exploration of middle-class respectability, and how it’s merely a thin veneer that covers something much darker and primal. Even before the parasites attack, everyone appears to be either having an affair or on the cusp of one. Nick the insurance man, for example, has been having relations with the girl killed by the mad doctor at the start of the film – in fact, she’s Shivers’ Typhoid Mary, since her fraternising with several men in the apartment building begins the spread of the parasites. By the time the building’s residents begin to succumb to the infection’s carnal influence, they’re merely indulging in the same activities they had before – they’re just a bit less hypocritical and subtle about it.
Cronenberg was 32 when he directed Shivers, and there’s a youthful sense of anarchy about the entire production. Its early title was the delicious Orgy Of The Blood Parasites, and although the film’s low budget is often painfully clear, there’s a real energy to its pace and build-up.
Had Shivers been made with the production values of a later Cronenberg work – say, Videodrome or The Fly – it would have been an even more disturbing film than it already is, with or without its moments of black humour. Cronenberg’s always been the master of the subtly stomach-churning, of creating scenes of genuine unease, and that’s equally true of his commercial debut.
Where his earlier films – Transfer (1966), From The Drain (1967) and Stereo (1969) had a more hip, arthouse feel, Shivers brings Cronenberg’s ideas of sexual mutation into a more sensationalist arena – this may be partially due to Cinepix, who partly funded Shivers (more on this later), a production company specialising in softcore and exploitation pictures.
The parasites, originally conceived as spiders, but changed to large, leech-like creatures due to budget constraints, are incredibly grotesque little creatures. Pulled by fishing lines though they often are, the repeated shots of them forcing their way out of their victims mouths (or, in one startling sequence, from the mouth of a child to an adult) are as hideous as they sound.
Gradually, Shivers morphs from horror drama to a kind of zombie sex nightmare; undoubtedly influenced by pioneering guerrilla filmmaker George Romero, Cronenberg concludes the movie with St Luc and his partner Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry, who previously starred in Romero’s The Crazies) attempting to escape from an army of parasite-infected residents, whose outstretched arms claw nightmarishly through the gaps in walls like the denizens of Night Of The Living Dead.
The penultimate sequence, where St Luc is cornered in a swimming pool by a throng of murmuring sex maniacs, is somehow surreal, funny, and extremely disturbing. In glorious slow motion, the doctor succumbs to the amorous advances of the now infected Nurse Forsythe. And with everyone in the building fully signed up to the parasites’ cause, the residents are shown calmly driving off into the city to spread their liberating disease to the rest of Canada.
The reaction to Shivers was almost as hysterical as the residents of the film’s highrise apartment. This was led by an article in the Canadian film magazine Saturday Night, which decried Shivers’ sex and violence, and condemned it as ‘repulsive’. Cronenberg’s problem was that, after three years of struggling to find the money to make the film (Roger Corman wanted to produce at one point), he’d finally found funding from Cinepix and the Canadian Film Development Corporation – essentially meaning that Shivers was made, in part, with Canadian taxpayers’ money.
This was something the Saturday Night article was quick to point out, since it was published under the headline, You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is. After All, You Paid For It. Unfortunately for the writer of that article, and the various politicians who subsequently railed against Cronenberg’s film, Shivers became one of the few Canadian movies that actually turned a profit.
What Shivers’ critics appeared to miss was that, as shocking as it is, it’s not merely a trashy exercise in exploitation – and for a director who would soon forge ahead as one of the most individual and compelling filmmakers of his generation, it’s a compelling statement of intent.
“They’re going to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new experience,” Cronenberg once said of the residents in Shivers, though he could have just as easily been talking about his audience. “They’re not going to go willingly. But underneath, there is something else, and that’s what we see at the end of the film.”
Next, we’ll be taking a look back at Cronenberg’s 1976 movie, Rabid.